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Q&A: Why do police announce DUI checkpoints in advance?

DUI Checkpoint, Citrus Heights, Police
Citrus Heights police hold a DUI checkpoint on Auburn Boulevard in 2015. // CH Sentinel

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Sentinel staff report–
Ever wonder why police publicize DUI checkpoint operations in advance and send out alerts to media prior to setting up a checkpoint? If so, you’re not alone.

Dave Gutierrez, special operations lieutenant for the Citrus Heights Police Department, said it’s a frequent question asked by community members anytime the department announces its DUI checkpoints in the city. He said a common perception from the public is that checkpoints are held with the primary goal of arresting intoxicated drivers, but he said that’s not the primary goal police have.

“Although [arrests] are a piece of it, a bigger piece of it is public awareness and education,” the lieutenant said in a phone interview last week. He said the more people are aware of police holding regular DUI checkpoints, the more likely they are to think twice about driving drunk and getting caught.

In other words, checkpoints are more about deterring people from driving drunk than they are about making arrests of drunk drivers.

While Gutierrez said police do not publicize the specific location of upcoming checkpoints, he acknowledged that once a checkpoint is set up, it’s likely that people who see it will tell others about the specific location.

“But if that person texts their friend and that person tells 10 other people, and so on, the hope and desire is that if they were thinking about driving drunk, maybe they don’t,” said the lieutenant. “Because they know one is in Citrus Heights; maybe another one is happening elsewhere… and the more people are talking about checkpoints the better.”

The California Supreme Court also noted in a 1987 ruling on checkpoints that advance publicity “may well decrease the chance of apprehending ‘ordinary’ criminals.” However, the court said the deterrent effect outweighed any potential negatives, finding that publicity has “a considerable deterring effect by either dissuading people from taking ‘one more for the road,’ persuading them to drink at home, or inducing them to take taxicabs.”

The deterrent effect of high-publicity DUI campaigns was documented in a 2006 study paid for by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which provides funding for checkpoints around the nation. The study found that alcohol-related crashes dropped significantly in various jurisdictions, after increased, high-publicity DUI campaigns were conducted that involved checkpoints and DUI saturation patrols.

Document: Read the NHTSA study

An example included in the study’s 108-page report found alcohol-related fatal collisions dropped by 50 percent in Fresno from 2002 to 2003, after Fresno Police “more than doubled” special enforcement activity. Overall alcohol-related crashes in Fresno dropped from 444 in 2002 down to 333 in 2003, an average drop of 25 percent.

In Citrus Heights, DUI-related collisions have dropped from 90 in 2014 down to 59 in 2017. Arrests in the city for DUI have also dropped, from 385 arrests in 2014 down to 232 last year. Police believe that a drop in both DUI arrests and collisions is a good indication that enforcement and education helped reduce the number of intoxicated drivers on the road.

“For us, a successful checkpoint, to be quite honest, is one where we do not arrest anyone for DUI,” said Gutierrez. “Because we believe it shows that the public awareness and education is working and fewer people are driving under the influence.”

Is advance publicity a legal requirement?
Advance publicity of a DUI checkpoint through sending out media releases is not a legal requirement, although Lt. Gutierrez said grant funds for checkpoints often come with a requirement for such advance publicity. While some states, like the neighboring state of Oregon, ban DUI checkpoints as unconstitutional, California’s Supreme Court upheld checkpoints as constitutionally permissible in a decision called Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987), as long as eight factors were followed.

Although advance notice was one of the eight factors listed, the court later ruled in People v. Banks (1993) that advance notice — although encouraged — was not required for a checkpoint to be constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has also found DUI checkpoints to be constitutional, but the Governor’s Highway Safety Association reports that a total of 13 states still do not conduct checkpoints for various reasons.

What about the signs before a checkpoint?
Gutierrez said signs and cones placed on the roadway leading up to a checkpoint are for the safety of police personnel and also give drivers a safe distance to merge into one lane. He said there also “has to be advance notice of the need to stop,” likely referencing the Ingersoll decision which states a need for high visibility warning signs and lights at a checkpoint.

What about entrapment?
Lt. Gutierrez said checkpoints do not constitute entrapment because police are “not forcing people to consume alcohol and then get into a car and drive.” A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case laid out a definition for entrapment, requiring that someone be induced by a government agent to commit a crime they ordinarily would not have committed.

What’s the difference between DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols?
DUI “saturation patrols” are roving police patrol units deployed specifically to identify and pull over drunk drivers. Unlike checkpoints, the roving patrols don’t have the potential downside of their specific location being revealed, but they still add to the goal of deterrence since police often send out news releases about saturation patrols.

Gutierrez said saturation patrols also have “more of an enforcement objective” and typically result in more arrests than checkpoints. He said the patrols can be deployed at any time of the year and don’t have to be accompanied by advance notice.

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